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February 23, 2023

Solar is clean. Solar panels are not. Here’s a fix

Solar energy is only as clean as the panels that deliver it. Recent breakthroughs promise a brighter future for cutting recycling costs.

In the news

Solar energy is often considered the cleanest of all renewable energy sources. However, the panels used to collect the energy pose a problem when it comes to recycling them.

In the US, the Department of Energy says only 10% of the country’s solar photovoltaic (PV) panels—whose life span is about 25 years—are recycled. Unsurprisingly, cost is a big factor. According to this piece on a pilot recycling program, the panels cost $1,500 per ton to recycle—and only $50 a ton to dump.

Note that the picture is far different in Europe, where EU subsidies have led to a recycling rate of 95%, according to this story. (More on the regulatory factor in a moment.)

From Australia, though, comes heartening news: Researchers there say they’ve found a cost-effective way to recycle solar panels. In this process, solar arrays are stripped of their aluminum frames. Their cells are then shredded, and electrostatic separation is used to collect such valuable materials as silver and copper. When all is said and done, the panels themselves retain only about 3% of their original weight—while the reclaimed materials are sent off for purification, processing and reuse.

By 2030, Australia will generate 145,000 tons of PV waste annually—dwarfed by both the US and China, at an expected 1 million and 1.5 million tons, respectively.

The Cognizant take

To meet net zero goals, it will be vital to create a circular economy for the equipment used to capture renewable energy. Rather then tossing outmoded equipment in landfills—an obvious irony given the end goal of sustainability—what’s needed is to extend the materials’ life beyond their original intended purpose through recycling.

In a circular economy, parts and materials (including critical metals) enjoy multiple life cycles and reentry points to the market as they are recovered, reused and remade. Solar panel recycling serves as an excellent early example. This paradigm shift has the potential to reduce waste and carbon emissions while extending the supply of parts and materials.

It’s important to note that governments can and should play a key role here. Europe’s reuse of solar panels puts that of the US to shame. That’s because the EU requires manufacturers to pay into a fund that subsidizes the practice. Subsidies and regulatory mandates are crucial tools for driving the world to net zero.

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